- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

After ceasing operations in December and needing a new owner to keep them alive, the Maryland Nighthawks are on solid ground — by American Basketball Association standards anyway.

The ABA continues to crumble around the Nighthawks, whose schedule has become meaningless. The minor league club in Prince George’s County often doesn’t know when it will play again or against whom.

“It gets kind of discouraging but not too discouraging,” Nighthawks center Kevin Robinson said. “It always could be your team folding.”

Long bus rides, small crowds and tiny paychecks come with the job on the low-budget end of professional basketball. Most Nighthawks players earn $200 to $300 a week, and their contracts aren’t guaranteed.

But it’s the uncertainty that’s toughest to bear.



The team plays home games on one of eight fullcourts at the Run ‘n’ Shoot facility in District Heights. When the Nighthawks play, so does everyone else; seven other pickup games often go on simultaneously. Temporary bleachers are wheeled in to accommodate crowds, which typically range from 200 to 300 a game.

The ABA is a last chance for players like Robinson, a 25-year-old from Largo who played at Division II Southern Indiana. Robinson was doing temp work, mainly as an office clerk, when his mother saw a newspaper advertisement for Nighthawks tryouts.

Robinson made the team and has shown enough promise as a 6-foot-11 center that he thinks he can climb the basketball ladder. That hope allows him to endure the difficult playing conditions.

This may be professional basketball’s bottom rung ” but at least he’s on the ladder.

“I am happy I just got my foot in the door,” said Robinson, who had 25 points in a win over the Carolina Thunder last Wednesday. “I don’t want to be a career ABA player. I want to get to the league. That is everybody’s dream. Maybe it will happen if I work hard enough.”

Maybe.

Probably not.

One Nighthawks player who has been to the NBA is guard Lawrence Moten. Moten, who turns 33 next month, played parts of three seasons in the NBA with the Vancouver Grizzlies and Washington Wizards. He was released by the Wizards in 1998.

Since playing for Washington, Moten has played in Greece, Spain, Venezuela and Puerto Rico. He also has toiled in far less exotic locales: the Mobile Revelers of the NBA Developmental League; the Idaho Stampede and Saskatchewan Hawks of the Continental Basketball Association; and the short-lived Maryland Mustangs of the U.S. Basketball League.

At Syracuse, Moten played before crowds of more than 30,000 in the Carrier Dome. He scored 2,334 points, which still stands as the school record. He still is putting up big numbers, only now he does it in obscurity for the Nighthawks.

The Carroll High School graduate is with the Nighthawks for a good reason: His first ABA team, the Philadelphia Fusion, folded.

Beyond the pressing needs of a paycheck and a place to play, Moten sees the Nighthawks as a means of getting back to the big time.

“I feel like you can never write off a possibility [of returning to the NBA],” said the 6-foot-5 Moten, who was picked by the Grizzlies in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft. “When I see the Allen Iversons and the Ray Allens and Chris Webbers and all the guys from my class that I played against in college, I feel I still have that same talent almost.”

Like Moten, Randy “White Chocolate” Gill earned a modest amount of basketball fame before joining the Nighthawks. Gill made a name for himself on the flashy urban hoops circuit known as street ball. He once won $100,000 on the MTV basketball reality show “Who’s Got Game?”

Now, at 26, Gill is trying to make it in traditional basketball, using the Nighthawks as a steppingstone to better things.

“I am trying to make it to the NBA,” said the 6-2 point guard, who along with Moten was named to the ABA All-Star Game. “I want them to take me seriously.”

The ABA might not be the best place for that to happen. The league expanded from seven to 35 clubs this season, but many of the franchises have folded.

“I am not sure exactly how many teams we have [left],” ABA president Joe Newman said.

The league lists 30 teams in its online standings, but several of those have ceased to function. The league is so unstable it cut the regular season short and will start the playoffs next week.

The ABA, however, plans to more than grow back what it lost this season: The league has signed on 45 new clubs for next season, including a team in Washington.

The ABA’s signature moment this season also was its most dubious. Nashville Rhythm owner Sally Anthony marched on court during a game last month and fired Ashley McElhiney, the only woman in the country to coach a men’s professional basketball team. Anthony, an aspiring country singer, had to be restrained and was removed from the arena by security guards.

Former NBA sideshow Dennis Rodman plays for the Long Beach Jam. Kobe Bryant’s 47-year old father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, was a player/coach for the Boston Frenzy. That club folded this season because playing road games proved too expensive.

The Nighthawks nearly met the same fate. The club’s first owner, Andrew Haines, couldn’t sustain the team, and the operation went out of business in December.

The Nighthawks exist now only because of Tom Doyle, a Rockville lawyer who took over the sinking franchise. The 40-year-old basketball enthusiast quickly moved the team out of Upper Marlboro’s Show Place Arena, where the Nighthawks paid $5,000 a game rent but averaged less than 300 fans.

Doyle pays a fraction of that fee at Run ‘n’ Shoot, whose courts he rents by the hour. The Nighthawks have been drawing about 200 fans at $7 admission for adults and $5 for children.

Doyle, who played basketball at the now-closed Peary High School in Rockville and was an amateur boxer, expects to spend about $100,000 on the team by the end of this season. But that doesn’t mean he thinks it’s a sound investment.

“Sound?” Doyle said, bursting into laughter. “It is the possibility of doing something that you love and have passion for and could succeed. … To bring out 500 or 1,000 fans, if they know about it, is a very doable thing.”

Doyle intends to run the Nighthawks like a business next season and hopes the league will stabilize, though he has concerns about its massive and rapid expansion.

The Nighthawks have persevered under coach James “Twiggy” Sanders, who was a Harlem Globetrotter for 16 seasons alongside the legendary Meadowlark Lemon and Curly Neal.

The team has been forced to cope with more than just business and scheduling distractions.

The coach of the Pennsylvania Pit Bulls, Tom Washington, collapsed on the sideline during a fourth-quarter timeout and died later that night. Players broke down in tears. Medics, including a game official who also is an EMT, worked furiously on the coach, to no avail.

“I saw the guy’s eyes roll back in his head before he fell straight back,” Nighthawks swingman Jason Williams said. “He didn’t even brace his fall. It was the scariest thing I have ever witnessed.”

Said Sanders: “I have been in basketball as a coach and player for 40 years, and I have never seen something so heartbreaking during a basketball game.”

This difficult season winds to a close for the Nighthawks with an intriguing likely playoff matchup. If the current seeds hold, the Nighthawks would play host to Long Beach and Rodman in the first round. Somehow facing a man who once posed in a wedding dress would be a fitting end to the Nighthawks’ absurd season.

“I thought we were done in December,” Sanders said. “It’s been an adventure. Now that we are going into the playoffs, it is starting to be fun.”

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